Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos, 96 mins, (18)
Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz, 96 mins, (15)

Todd Solondz's follow-up to 'Happiness' has been out-weirded by a Greek film that takes dysfunction to a new level

As Tolstoy wrote in 1878: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But that was 17 years before the invention of cinema, so he didn't know the half of it.

He would have been amazed and horrified to see the endless new twists on family agonies that film has devised. Until now, I'd have said that no one took the theme quite as far as American independent Todd Solondz, whose jaw-droppingly auda-cious Happiness (1998) is one of recent cinema's truly great provocations.

But Solondz may have met his match in a new Greek film called Dogtooth, which – as the title suggests – has a way of clamping itself on your attention and refusing to let go, however much it's hurting you. Even so, Solondz is on daring form with Life During Wartime – loosely speaking, a sequel to Happiness. That film was an unforgiving ensemble comedy about human weakness, in which the characters included three sisters, with three different modes of neurosis, and a bland suburban dad who was secretly a predatory paedophile. The scene at the end in which his young son asks him exactly what he does is the most devastatingly uncomfortable thing I've ever witnessed on screen.

Solondz's subsequent films Storytelling and Palindromes seemed a little incomplete by comparison, too formally elusive to hit home to the same extent. Life During Wartime, however, is both a reprise and something new.

It follows the Happiness characters, a few years on. Disgraced father Bill is newly out of prison, while his wife Trish has taken the children and moved to Florida; there she's met a new man (Michael Lerner), whom she falls for because he's so reassuringly normal. Meanwhile, Trish's uncrushably naive sister Joy is still having trouble with men, even the dead ones: one old lover returns from the grave to guilt-trip her.

Life During Wartime might seem a desperate move, an unnecessary follow-up to something impossible to follow; but the conceptually-minded Solondz is doing something quite singular here. The characters are the same but the cast is not, with very different actors stepping into the old roles. As Bill, Dylan Baker – so unsettlingly bland-seeming – is replaced by the brooding, hulking Ciaran Hinds, as though the character has been mentally, emotionally and physically transformed beyond recognition by his exposure. Joy, originally Jane Adams, is now Shirley Henderson, embodying a more fragile, other-worldly ditziness. As Joy's old beau Andy, now an angst-wracked revenant, Jon Lovitz's successor is Paul Reubens, aka disgraced kids' TV host Pee-Wee Herman. This is extremely provocative stunt casting for a film that muses on the possibility of forgiveness, and Reubens is poignantly troubling, his haggard face attesting to the effects of real-life trauma. And as the new Trish, Alison Janney makes a dazzlingly clueless queen of suburban complacency.

Life During Wartime may seem familiar: Solondz playfully admits as much when Joy experiences "just a little déjà vu". But by explicitly framing the film as a reworking of old material, Solondz messes with our expectations and erodes the certainties of character. There are new things too, notably Charlotte Rampling's self-proclaimed "monster" (inset below) who has a passing liaison with Bill: it's her most frightening performance yet, a study in the human heart as ravaged bombsite.

The family is the ultimate place of attrition, but parents and callous siblings aren't the only ones doing harm. The character who causes the profoundest damage is Trish's younger son Billy (a brave and compelling performance by Dylan Riley Snyder) who, after all, is doing nothing more than trying to understand the world in time for his barmitzvah. Solondz himself resembles the anxious suburban kids of his films. He too is always asking terrible questions about life and then, however dreadful the answers, pressing on and never stopping till he's unearthed even worse truths.

But even Solondz might be alarmed by the family in Dogtooth. A middle-aged couple have raised their children – now young adults – in absolute seclusion, feeding them bizarre lies about the world and about language. As far as the son and two daughters know, aeroplanes are tiny things that occasionally crash in the garden, cats are flesh-eating monsters and the sea is a sofa. The children entertain themselves with games of dare, while the son occasionally receives visits from Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard paid by Dad (Christos Stergioglou) to keep the boy sexually serviced.

The claustrophobic comic nightmare is all the more intense because everything is made to seem routine, almost normal. The family villa is a clean pleasant place, swimming pool and all, and the sunlit photography creates an idyllic mood – all the better to offset the dominant oppressiveness. Director/co-writer Giorgos Lanthimos keeps us guessing and explains virtually nothing. He also provokes with an edge of queasy sexiness that's all the more unsettling for being utterly perverse and downright awkward.

The extraordinarily disciplined acting (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni are the daughters) shows an ensemble united by a spirit of adventure, a commitment to follow this wild Theatre of Cruelty farce to whatever extremes it leads. You could mention Buñuel, Haneke, Atom Egoyan and Sweetie-era Jane Campion by way of comparison, but Dogtooth is pretty much one of a kind. Its view of family life is so outré that Lanthimos may have the edge on Life During Wartime – but he and Todd Solondz would have lots to talk about. Their folks should feel very proud of them.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney prepares to grapple with a couple of real sluggers: Iron Man 2 and Viking drama Valhalla Rising

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine